February saw three more decisions by Trump-nominated district court judges that harm Biden Administration actions to protect public health and the environment. In addition, two Trump appellate judges refused to stay an order that stopped COVID-19 vaccination requirements for Navy SEALs. These rulings continue the troubling pattern of Trump judge orders interfering with efforts to protect the environment and public health.
Trump Judge Freezes Efforts to Help Better Control Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change
Louisiana Trump Judge James Cain issued a preliminary injunction that stopped Biden Administration agency efforts to better calculate the social costs of carbon emissions. Experts explain that the action will result in “hamstringing” agency efforts to calculate and control the emission of greenhouse gases. This is crucial to efforts to combat climate change.
The Trump Administration had ordered agencies to calculate the costs of such emissions at an arbitrarily low rate. President Biden directed agencies to develop rules that would accurately update and calculate such costs. In the interim, he ordered agencies to use pre-Trump standards for internal purposes. As a result of a lawsuit by a number of Republican states, however, Trump judge Cain blocked the use of these standards as an internal guideline, even before the agencies complete work on new rules.
Experts criticized the “almost unprecedented” and improper ruling because it controls agency “internal decision-making” before any final rule. According to one report, the order has created “temporary chaos” in agencies, “upending everything from planned oil and gas leases to infrastructure spending.” The Justice Department plans to appeal. Update: A Ficth Circuit panel not including any Trump judges stayed the lower court ruling in March, 2022.
Trump Judge Issues Another Anti-Vax Decision
Georgia Trump District Judge Tillman Self stopped the Air Force from enforcing its COVID-19 vaccination requirement against a woman claiming religious objections. Self’s preliminary injunction allows her to continue working and remain unvaccinated because of the vaccine’s alleged “connection to abortion.” Specifically, she claims a religious objection because, she maintains, the COVID-19 vaccine was “derived from or tested on aborted fetal tissue in its development.” Being injected with the vaccine, she claims, would thus violate her Christian beliefs. This is despite the fact that the vaccines themselves “do not contain any aborted fetal cells or fetal tissue.” The Vatican and most other Christian leaders have approved and in fact encouraged use of the vaccine.
The Air Force considered the exemption request and denied it, as it has with most others. The Air Force explained that it had a “compelling government interest” in “maintaining a healthy and ready military force through vaccination.” Trump judge Self rejected the Air Force’s arguments and stopped enforcement of the requirement while the lawsuit continues. With thousands of other such exemption requests pending, the future of the issue remains unclear.
Trump Appellate Judges Refuse to Allow Even Partial Stay of Anti-Vax Order
Trump Fifth Circuit Judges Kyle Duncan and Kurt Engelhardt, joined by conservative Bush appointee Edith Jones, issued an anti-vax order harming the Navy SEALs. More than 99% of US Navy personnel have complied with requirements to be vaccinated against COVID-19. But 35 Navy SEALs and related personnel objected on religious grounds, similar to those in the Air Force case above. A district judge granted a preliminary injunction against the Navy.
The government sought a partial stay of the decision from the Fifth Circuit. It wanted to appropriately consider vaccination status “in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions” while the lawsuit continues. The Navy explained that SEALs would “inevitably be expected to live and work in close proximity” with others. Disapproval of the exemption requests, the Navy stated, was “the least restrictive means available to preserve” the military’s “compelling interest in military readiness, mission accomplishment, and the health and safety” of naval personnel.
The Fifth Circuit panel, however rejected the Navy’s request and upheld the injunction in an unsigned opinion. They criticized the Navy because it granted medical but not religious exemptions from the vaccine requirement. This rationale resembled a dissent by Justices Gorsuch and Alito last year. They claimed that New York had improperly granted medical but not religious exemptions to a vaccination requirement for health care workers. The Second Circuit had refused to grant a preliminary injunction on that ground, and the Supreme Court majority declined to disturb that result.
In the Navy SEAL case, several high-ranking officers explained the harmful impact of the courts’ orders. Forcing the Navy to deploy unvaccinated SEALs, they reported, “puts the Navy’s ability to respond to crises around the world at unecessary and self-inflicted risk.” The Justice Department has not yet announced what action it will take in the case.
Trump Judge Strikes Down Rules to Control Health Care Costs
Texas Trump judge Jeremy Kernodle issued a decision that invalidated part of the Biden Administration plan to protect patients from exorbitant “surprise” medical bills. The ruling granted summary judgment in favor of a Texas medical association. In particular, the order limits the ability to cut payments to doctors from insurance companies for services that a Congressional law requires that patients should not have to pay.
Kernodle agreed that the law calls for protection of patients from large “surprise” medical bills when it turns out their insurance does not cover particular services. But he held that the law does not authorize agency rules that cut insurance payments to doctors who provide them. Experts explain that doctors’ groups are “simply seeking to protect inflated payments.” The result, they warn, could well be “higher premiums for consumers once the higher prices are passed on to them.” Either an appeal of this ruling or other pending lawsuits will resolve the issue.
Update: In a 6-3 order on March 25, the Supreme Court granted the stay sought by the government in the Navy SEALS case, overturning the 5th Circuit. Justices Gorsuch, Alito, and Thomas dissented.
Update: The Fifth Circuit in May stayed the Louisiana Trump judge order on greenhouse gases and the Supreme Court denied a petittion to vacate the stay on May 26.